The Invisible War

Trailer (1:46)
Clip ( 1:23)

About the Film

Lieutenant Elle Helmer at the Vietnam War Memorial, US Marine Corps. Ariana Klay, US Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant, in Marine dress blues next to a male Marine. A crucifix and a Smith & Wesson knife; possessions Kori Cioca keeps close to her now Seaman Recruit Hannah Sewell, US Navy, embraces her father Sergeant Major Jerry Sewell. Dr. Kaye Whitley, former Director SAPRO, at a press conference.

The Invisible War is a groundbreaking investigative documentary about one of America’s most shameful and best kept secrets: the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military. The film, a nominee for the 2013 Academy Awards, paints a startling picture of the extent of the problem: Today, a female soldier in combat zones is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.

The Department of Defense estimates there were a staggering 22,800 violent sex crimes in the military in 2011. Among all active-duty female soldiers, 20 percent are sexually assaulted. Female soldiers age 18 to 21 accounted for more than half of the victims.

Focusing on the powerfully emotional stories of rape victims, The Invisible War exposes the systemic cover-up of military sex crimes, chronicling the women’s struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice. It also features hard-hitting interviews with high-ranking military officials and members of Congress that reveal the perfect storm of conditions that exist for rape in the military, its long-hidden history, and what can be done to bring about much-needed change.

At the core of the film are interviews with the rape survivors themselves — people like Kori Cioca, who was beaten and raped by her supervisor in the U.S. Coast Guard; Ariana Klay, a Marine who served in Iraq before being raped by a senior officer and his friend, then threatened with death; and Trina McDonald who was drugged and raped repeatedly by military policemen on her remote Naval station in Adak, Alaska. And it isn’t just women; according to one study's estimate, one percent of men in the military — nearly 20,000 — were sexually assaulted in 2009.

And while rape victims in the civilian world can turn to a police force and judicial system for help and justice, rape victims in the military must turn to their commanders — a move that is all too often met with foot-dragging at best, and reprisals at worst. To make matters worse, 33 percent of rape victims didn’t report the assault because the person they’d have to report it to was a friend of the rapist. And 25 percent didn’t report it because the person they’d have to report the rape to was the rapist himself.

Many rape victims find themselves forced to choose between speaking up and keeping their careers. Little wonder that only 8 percent of military sexual assault cases are prosecuted.

Is there hope that this broken system can be fixed? Many think so, and credit The Invisible War with inspiring some much-needed recent action. “This film has been instrumental in bringing the issue to light, and providing the impetus for positive change,” says Lois Vossen, Independent Lens senior series producer.

Since The Invisible War premiered at Sundance, the film has been circulating through the highest levels of the Pentagon and the Obama administration. Two day after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched The Invisible War, he directed military commanders to hand over all sexual assault investigations to a higher-ranking colonel. At the same time, Panetta announced that each branch of the armed forces would establish a Special Victims Unit. A congressional panel is set to hold hearings on sexual abuse in the military in early 2013.

The Filmmakers

Producer/director Kirby Dick

Producer/director Kirby Dick is known for making highly influential, award-winning films. The Invisible War is an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature, and has been the impetus for possible change on a national level. His previous film, Outrage, examined the hypocrisy of powerful, closeted politicians and was nominated for an Emmy. In 2006 he directed This Film is Not Yet Rated. A breakthrough expose of the highly secretive MPAA film ratings system, the film compelled the MPAA to make long overdue changes in the way it rates films. Dick’s prior film, Twist of Faith, is the story of a man confronting the trauma of his past sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. It received a 2004 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Dick’s other films include Derrida, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, and Supermasochist.

Producer Amy Ziering

Producer Amy Ziering is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated documentary producer and director who previously worked with Kirby Dick on the films Outrage and Derrida. Ziering also produced The Memory Thief, which was a New York Times critics’ pick and won several festival awards, and Taylor’s Campaign. Ziering taught at Yale during her graduate studies there. She initiated and runs the ongoing Films 4 Change activist film series.